Methodist minds are not that open!

September 14, 2011

I’m a fan of Roger Olson’s blog, subtitled “My evangelical Arminian theological musings.” I am both evangelical and Arminian. Actually, reading his blog has helped me to realize just how strongly I identify with both those labels.

Olson is a Baptist, of the American (née Northern) persuasion, who teaches at Baylor. I am formerly Baptist, of the Southern persuasion, who has probably been shaped by that tradition more than I know. I feel some kinship with him. He seems practically Methodist to me. And I hope he wouldn’t take offense at my saying that!

Anyway, he wrote a provocative piece last week about Freemasonry, which is prevalent in the part of Texas where he lives now—and in other parts of the South where he has lived and worked.

It was a good post, and I was in the process of commenting on it, when I stumbled upon this statement of his from the comments section. He was responding to a commenter who said that he believed that Methodists in good standing could also be Masons.

Sometimes I think Methodists can be anything. In high school my daughter dated the son of a philosophy professor at a Methodist university. He (the father) was an atheist and a member in good standing of a UMC congregation! Of course, not all Methodists are like that. Many are good evangelical Christians. I just think the hierarchy of the church is too tolerant.

I responded:

United Methodist pastor here. I must object to this statement…

“In high school my daughter dated the son of a philosophy professor at a Methodist university. He (the father) was an atheist and a member in good standing of a UMC congregation! Of course, not all Methodists are like that.”

You mean “all” of us Methodists aren’t atheists? Thanks for at least giving us that! I’m sure that this professor, who was “in good standing” in a UMC congregation, didn’t volunteer to the congregation that he didn’t believe in the God that he pledged—through his membership vows—to love and serve. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be a member in good standing.

Did he lie when he took his membership vow? Did he become an atheist after becoming a member, and is it the pastor’s job then to root out the atheists in the congregation? In my experience, atheists aren’t usually active church members to begin with. Was he a member in good standing because his name was on a church roll somewhere?

I know the UMC is a mess, but it’s my mess. Sorry if I’m a bit defensive. I’m not aware that it’s messier than any other denomination.

I don’t consider myself any kind of cheerleader for the United Methodist Church. I could happily cheerlead for the Wesleyan movement in general, of which I’m a great admirer. Still, the UMC—however badly it strays from its core convictions—is my church. It’s my family, and I love it. Inasmuch as I fail to be a good Wesleyan Christian, it’s certainly not the UMC’s fault. They’ve shown me how to do it. They’ve blessed me with people who role-model it for me every day. It’s not the church’s fault that it’s too damn hard for me! I’m the one who’s afraid take the training wheels off.

Dr. Olson wrote back, and he sort of stepped in it deeper.

Some years ago the UMC embraced “theological pluralism.” I realize that wasn’t intended to allow atheism, but did it open the door to that? If I’m not mistaken, Thomas Altizer is a Methodist. Has the UMC ever disciplined him? Don’t get me wrong, I know many wonderfully evangelical Christians who are UMC. The grassroots are usually much more so than the hierarchy (with many exceptions such as William Willimon).

“Theological pluralism”! That’s an inflammatory charge! Altizer! Ugh! When I was in high school, and still a Baptist, I knew a colllege-aged Methodist who moonlighted at my church’s Sunday evening service. He felt called into ministry (through the UMC) and was considering seminaries. He said he couldn’t go to Candler at Emory (my future alma mater) because “it’s so liberal they teach ‘Christian atheism’ classes!”

I’m still not sure what “Christian atheism” is, but I don’t want any part of it! What my friend was referring to, I think, was the controversy stirred up by Thomas Altizer, an Emory professor in the Graduate Division of Religion back in the ’60s. Altizer was a proponent of something called the “Death of God” movement in theology. Please note: He was not on the faculty of the Candler School of Theology and had no connection whatsoever to the UMC (except that Emory is a UMC-affiliated university).

I replied:

I almost preemptively mentioned Altizer in my original comment because it so happens that the seminary I went to, Candler at Emory, is still dealing with fallout from that. Two important facts: Altizer was an Episcopalian, not a Methodist. He didn’t teach in the school of theology but in the graduate department [sic] of religion. (As you know, you practically have to be an atheist to teach in a graduate department of religion, don’t you? That isn’t the same thing as a theology school.)

Back in the ’60s, Methodists were outraged about Altizer. As our bishop explained at the time, he had no authority to discipline him. Candler had no authority to discipline him; he wasn’t one of its faculty. And the president of Emory defended Altizer in the interest of academic freedom (which I think is a good thing).

So where did the Methodists go wrong in that situation?

You say that the UMC at some point embraced “religious pluralism.” This is news to me. Peruse our Book of Discipline, our law book, and show me any hint of the UMC’s embracing religious pluralism. It isn’t there. In fact, I rather like this paragraph ¶ 128:

“The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world.”

I was ordained last year as an elder after a VERY long period of testing and probation (it takes about eight years, start to finish including seminary). During that time we have to answer, in some depth, many specific questions related to the historic Christian faith and defend our answers before various boards and committees. A religious pluralist would be rooted out (unless they lie). In fact, even a true [theological] liberal Christian (whose natural affinity would be with the ECUSA or UCC), not to mention a religious pluralist, would look at the UMC and reach the exact opposite conclusion from you: the UMC is way too “conservative” when it comes to orthodox Christianity.

I know this because I was in seminary with plenty of [theological] liberals, and more than a few religious pluralists. None of them were in the UMC. (Which isn’t to say there aren’t some of them out there, of course, but you know what I mean!)

Moreover, Dr. Olson, one very important part of a Methodist seminary education is the study of Wesleyan theology. You of all people, as an outspoken Arminian, should appreciate this. We can’t get through seminary without being immersed in Wesleyan thought. We Methodist clergy tend to really love John and Charles Wesley. It’s almost weird how much we love them and talk about them!

The point is that the theology of most Methodist clergy doesn’t fall far from that tree. It’s certainly not supposed to. If it does, it isn’t the fault of the hierarchy or the process of ordination. If anything, I sense that the church is working harder to get back to its Wesleyan roots. In my experience, an appreciation of Wesleyan thought is much stronger at the clergy level than the grassroots level. Seminaries have beefed up their Wesleyan courses.

A United Methodist clergy person who is either very liberal or a true pluralist would have to withstand much cognitive dissonance on his or her path to ordination. Again, I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen sometimes. Of course it does. But it’s not because the denomination has embraced religious pluralism.

I grew up Southern Baptist. I’m well aware of the stereotypes that Baptists have of Methodists. I’m surprised that you seem to share some of them. Talk to Will Willimon some time. I don’t think I’m saying anything about the UMC that he wouldn’t agree with. I’ve met and spoken with him before, and I know two other bishops in the UMC. I’m certain that all three would strenuously disagree with your characterization. They are deeply committed to the orthodox Christian faith, and to our specific Wesleyan emphases.

But really… I know Baylor is a Baptist school, but do you not know any Methodists? I mean, not a stray Methodist academic here or there, but just good ol’ rank-and-file Methodist people? We’re really not all that bad. And maybe the point of this defense is to simply say, “We’re not nearly as bad as you think.” I wish I could say more, but I concede that we have major problems—the biggest of which is that we’re a denomination full of sinners in need of God’s grace.

We had another friendly exchange. I probably overreacted to his charge of pluralism and/or misinterpreted what he meant by it. (I was thinking of someone like John Hick, who represents an all-paths-lead-to-God kind of pluralism.) Regardless, the church has certainly not embraced theological pluralism—which isn’t to say that many Methodists aren’t heterodox or deeply confused about what they believe. It happens.

Olson, I believe, has a distorted view of Methodists because of his career in academia. That’s not a side of the church that I see very much—but, frankly, it’s also not a side of the church that is nearly as influential as he thinks. That there are scholars who are incidentally Methodist and heterodox, not to mention non-Wesleyan or non-evangelical, doesn’t surprise me. The UMC is the largest mainline denomination and has a fairly wide tent, theologically. Methodists who choose to pursue academic careers are a self-selecting group that hardly represent the denomination as a whole.

But that’s an understatement: only a tiny sliver of an already tiny minority of Methodists who feel called or compelled to work in the church choose to go into academia. Of that tiny sliver, a much smaller number do so as ordained clergy. Unless they belong to the order of elders or deacons, they are not directly accountable to the UMC in any way. They can say or do whatever they want, and the UMC has no authority to discipline them.

Besides, relative to the size of the UMC, are there really very many Methodists in academia? I went to a United Methodist seminary, after all. Outside of my Methodist concentration classes, I had exactly zero professors who were United Methodist. How is that possible? I was taught Old Testament by a Southern Baptist; New Testament by a Church of Christ Christian; the history of Christian thought by, respectively, a Roman Catholic, a Congregationalist, and a Lutheran pietist; and systematic theology by a German Lutheran pastor. I could go on, but you get the point.

I hope that the old marketing slogan “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” means that we’re as welcoming as any church. I hope it means that we’re less self-righteous and hypocritical than any church. I hope it means that we’re open to the possibility that we could be wrong and that we don’t have all the answers.

But I know that it doesn’t mean we’re so open-minded that our brains fall out!

8 Responses to “Methodist minds are not that open!”

  1. Susan Taylor Says:

    Brent, as a recovering Southern Baptist, I enjoyed reading this post. I am United Methodists because the majority of Southern Baptist congregations, those affiliated with the Southern Baptist Association, would not ordain me because upon re-reading the Bible, they have determined that women cannot be ordained clergy. I embrace the large theological tent of the UMC, and I stand with you, brother along with all good, the bad and the ugly of the UMC. John and Charles Wesley were people of “the way,” and so are we.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks, Susan. As long as I’m a sinner, I can’t sit very tall in the saddle of my high horse regarding the UMC. Like I told Dr. Olson, I know it’s a mess, but it’s my mess, and I love it.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent & Susan, I’m not sure the “larger theological tent” is exactly consistent with the point that Brent seems to be making; i.e., that UMC “stands for something,” and that this something is not “pluralistic,” much less “atheistic,” but rather fundamentally Christian (not to be confused with “fundamentalist”). So, if ordination of women is “okay,” then it must be consistent with scripture, not allowed because it is part of some “larger theological tent.” I recognize there is debate about women in the “clergy” (by which I undersand to be meant, preaching and lead pastoring, not just any participation in Christian “minstry” or “on staff”), but the answer to that question should be one grounded in scripture. I admit to being a Southern Baptist, which both of you “escaped from,” and that I concur with the Baptist position on the issue. Not that I have to be right–I just think we should all agree that the ultimate answer should be–What says the scripture? And I think that approach is the one Brent’s missive is more consistent with.


  3. Very nice article – thank you for sharing the problems that you’ve had with Roger Olsons claims!


  4. Brent,
    I commented on Olson’s blog and hopefully it’ll be approved soon.

    Dr, Olson is correct in his charge that for a period the UMC embraced “theological pluralism” in their doctrinal statement. This period was from 1972 until 1988. During this time evangelicals sought to remove this phrase because they saw it as detrimental to the church’s future. In 1988, the phrase “theological pluralism” was removed from the Book of Discipline and the section on “Our Doctrinal Heritage” now reflects apostolic orthodoxy with Wesleyan and Reformation distinctives.

  5. brentwhite Says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Jonathan. Indeed, a simple Google search would have set me straight. Ugh! I think I’m a victim of not having grown up Methodist. Plus, I obviously slept through that part of Methodist polity class, because I don’t remember that discussion. I’m glad the Discipline was changed.

    When I wrote my ordination papers, I combed through the Doctrinal Heritage section rather finely. The words on the Wesleyan quadrilateral—in my opinion the most easily misunderstood aspect of the section—strongly emphasize the primacy of scripture. It’s not even close to pluralism, in my opinion. And I know firsthand that people who embrace a more pluralistic viewpoint would find our Discipline way too strict and traditional for their liking.

    I feared that I overreacted a little to Dr. Olson’s words about pluralism. But really… One of the recurring themes on his blog is the unfair characterization of his (and other Arminians’) views by hyper-Calvinists and neo-fundamentalists. I thought, in a similar way, he was being deeply unfair the UMC.

    At the same time, I get it… I’m well aware of many of the problems that we have as a denomination. Like I said, it may be a mess, but it’s my mess. I don’t like outsiders criticizing it like that!

  6. betsypc Says:

    A view from the pew–a little behind the times; I am fairly new to your blog and I just now read this post.

    I am a lifelong Methodist who grew up as a “good Methodist” in the 60’s and 70’s. I had a clergy grandfather and a clergy uncle and a mother who was a certified Director of Christian Education and Diaconal minister–a now defunct title–although during my growing up years she was never “being Methodist” became a strong part of my identity. I did the usual of going away to college and not attending church accept when I returned home. In my late 20’s I responded to an urge and returned to church. Also married and had a family. As an adult, I spent 20 years in the local UMC, regularly attending Sunday School and worship on an almost weekly basis. I can’t testify to the presence of theological pluralism, but I can testify to the lack of consistent teaching of anything in particular. Over the years I had developed a strong sense of God, but I never had a clear understanding of who He is and who I am as an individual in relation to him. My only connection to God was through “doing church”. The only way I knew to bring God home was through the ritual of the Advent Wreath and that was only for 4 weeks out of the year. I spent a lot of energy on compartmentalizing my messy family of origin away from God so that I could be “worthy”; for the most part Christianity felt like rocket science, and at times I questioned whether or not my messy and confusing life belonged in it. The wheels finally came off five years ago–including at church–and I became so lost, confused and broken I ended up totally abandoning church for 18 months. During that time I discovered the Heidelberg Catechism and a book about it. The two became my first introduction to basic orthodox Christianity and I was stunned on two fronts: that nobody had ever shared this knowledge with me before and that I could not find anything out of the Wesleyan camp that did the same thing. I did some more reading, including delving into Wesley. Ultimately, I discovered the existence of a triune God of holy love who is most definitely way more verb than noun; an unfathomable God of mystery who loves me more than I can ever think about loving myself; I discovered we are a rebellious lot who have a hard time relinquishing control. But most importantly, I finally realized that I was folded into God’s story of salvation and that my messy, confusing life most definitely needed the God of Christianity.

    One of the surprising things I learned about Wesley was that he never set out to change anything–he set out to live a holy life centered in God and that led him to unexpected places. The original focus of Methodism was supporting individuals in living their lives centered in God 24/7. And although that had a social aspect to it, Wesley maintained a proper balance between the individual and the social. He stressed the individual component every bit as much as he stressed the social. That balance has become lost within the UMC; based on my experience, at its best, the focus leans too much social to the exclusion of the individual; in fact, I think the liberal/progressives have taken the social aspect to the extreme. The starting point of Wesleyan Christianity is the transformation of individuals into the person God created them to be–and that is not a cookie cutter process. And I can testify that true, heart changing redemption began with knowledge of who God is and who I am in relation. What ever is contained in the Discipline as to what “we believe”, is not adequately or consistently transmitted to the person in the pew.

    And actually, I can attest to a case of very recent theological pluralism. I was cruising through the UM Insight website and stopped and read an article by a campus pastor from California dealing with the shooting in Ferguson, MO. In the article, the pastor flat out stated that, just like the boy in Ferguson, Jesus did not have to die. One of the few things I had grasped about Christianity was that it was important that Jesus had died. The Heidelberg taught me why he had to die and that is what makes God so amazingly awesome and makes Christianity such a scandalous thing! There were a few comments in response to the article but none of them referenced his theology when it came to Christ.

    • brentwhite Says:

      “Jesus didn’t have to die.” Yes, I heard that in seminary a lot—as if Jesus could have happily died of old age, and that would have accomplished the same thing as the cross! People who say that usually reject the idea that Jesus’ death was necessary for our atonement. They certainly don’t believe in any form of penal substitution, a doctrine that (I believe) United Methodists desperately need to recover.

      Welcome to my blog. I hope you’ll find I don’t fit the stereotype of Methodist ministers who seem indifferent to theology and doctrine.


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